Monday, February 8, 2010

A True Dilemma

You know the saying "you are what you eat?" I have a whole new view on it since I read Michael Pollin's The Omnivore's Dilemma last fall.

Now, don't get me wrong, I still grab myself a Bojangle's Supremes combo every couple months. But the book demands you look not only at what you eat, but also at your place and role in creating the food you consume.

What the book basically gets at is that, if we are what we eat, what we are is corn. Piles of corn. High fructose corn syrup. Corn oil. The chicken you eat at most restaurants? Fed on corn. Beef, too, which is actually really bad for cows.

Pollin gets into the reasons for all this. And I couldn't do it any justice by typing all the reasons here... you should just read the book.

What's interesting is that Pollin isn't some holier-than-thou warrior for vegetarianism. In fact, he's pretty clear on the idea that simply looking at a human shows we're supposed to eat some meat. Our teeth handle meat well. Our bodies have acids and things that break down meat that serve no digestive purpose on plants. He accepts that, perhaps, the philosophical arguments for vegetarianism have merit, but he's by no means saying the world is going to be a better place if we all stop eating meat.

In fact, what he proposes is something much different. Basically, he's looking for all of us to eat 1) seasonally and 2) locally.

Seasonally, you say? He attacks the culture we have where every food is available all the time. Plants and animals. He has a special place of scorn for "organic" produce that is brought to the US out of season on cargo jets. And you also probably don't want to know what "organic" means in FDA speak.

Point being, if it's April, that's not generally the time of year when certain plants and animals are ready for harvest per the natural cycles of things. Only modern efficiency farming methods have made this possible, and often to the detriment of our diets and the soils we require to grow food.

As for locally, it's amazing none of us find it odd that someone in Burlington, VT can peel a ripe Florida orange all year 'round. I'm not sure that, in and of itself, is harmful. But on a macro scale, it makes it has a lot of effects, notably on the price of food and the methods used to mass produce it. Certainly, in the case of meat, it makes a difference.

Pollin spends the course of the book looking for the perfect meal... one that is truly organic that he can feel good about eating. It was not an easy task, and certainly not the cheapest route to take.

The end result for me is a bit of dismay. We should all be wary of just what we're consuming - and I don't mean from a calorie standpoint or chemical standpoint. Simply, humans have never eaten the way we have started to eat the past 20 years. We don't really know what side effects there will be.

But we're going to find out because the only solution is a culture change so drastic as to simply not be realistic. Me choosing to eat differently is lovely and all, but my options are so thoroughly limited because the economics of food make it much easier for everyone else to eat "badly." Honestly, short of a list of holistic reasons, there are few practical reasons to eat in a way that is sustainable for our health and society. We've built a food system that may well be harmful to us all... but there's no exit ramp, unless you have a whole lot of money.

1 comment:

Adaena said...

I love Michael Pollan. I haven't read the Omnivore's Dilemma, but did read In Defense of Food, which really made me think twice about processed foods. The other day, I prepared organic strawberry shortcake, using ingredients from the local health food store. The strawberries didn't taste all that fresh and eating it in February felt wrong on so many levels.